Perfectionism and Health at Every Size

When I teach dance classes, one of the things that I always talk about is that, while I’ll be giving choreography, it really doesn’t matter.  The dancing is all about enjoying moving your body, and getting the steps right isn’t important in any way.

Inevitably at the end someone will tell me that one of the things that made it really fun for them was that I gave them permission to make mistakes.

I’m going to tell you a secret…I don’t actually have any special permission giving abilities.  I can’t give anybody permission to do anything.  What I actually do is invite the people in the workshop to give themselves permission to screw up, and some of them take me up on the offer, and they generally have a better experience for it.

I risk public failure all the time.  Dance performance is, by its nature, an instantaneous art.  A painter works on a piece, starts over, adds to it etc. until they feel that it is ready. They put a sheet over it and take it to a gallery.  They take the sheet off and the painting looks just like it looked at home.  As a dancer I choreograph a piece, I rehearse for hours, but when I step on the stage there is no guarantee that it will look like it looked in the practice studio.

It goes by in nanoseconds that you can never get back. I could slip, I could lose my balance, I could forget the choreography.  I’m a perfectionist by nature and by choice. My mistakes haunt me and push me to improve, that’s who I am as a performer and I don’t apologize for that.

But everything is not a performance, and sometimes being willing to screw it up is more important than trying to get it right.  When I decided to move from a dieting lifestyle to a Health at Every Size lifestyle, I had to give myself permission to screw up.  No longer was my eating dictated by what came in a plastic bag of microwaveable highly processed food, or a packet of processed pre-digested soy protein shake.  I had firmly rejected the idea that Jenny Craig knew better than I did what my body needed.  I was not yet sure how to trust my body’s signals, and how to make choices..  It meant unlearning a lot of myths and lies that I had bought (and paid dearly for) and re-educating myself and that meant “screwing up” by my definition at the time – not eating enough and ending up hungry in the middle of a dance rehearsal, eating something that gave me heartburn or made me feel yucky etc. all kinds of “screw ups.”

Had I not given myself permission to do that, then I would probably still be confusing health and weight, hating my body, less healthy than I am now (physically and mentally), and hoping somebody somewhere would just tell me what to eat.  What I learned for me was that it’s not about right or wrong, there aren’t really screw ups – it’s a continuum of making decisions, learning things from the results, and then moving on.

Obviously, you don’t have to choose to practice HAES, your decisions about how to prioritize your health and the path you choose to get there are yours to make, and they are not matters of social commentary or morality.  If you do practice HAES you may never have the issues that I did, everyone’s experience is different and that’s totally cool.  But, on the off chance that you’re looking for an invitation to give yourself permission to screw up then here it is, knock yourself out!

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I do size acceptance activism full time.  A lot what I do, like answering over 5,000 e-mails from readers each month, giving talks to groups who can’t afford to pay, and running projects like the Georgia Billboard Campaign etc. is unpaid, so I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and/or want to  support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month  To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.

So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, I would ask that you consider becoming a member or supporting my work with a  one-time contribution.

The regular e-mail blog subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is always completely free. If you’re curious or uncomfortable about any of this, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

11 thoughts on “Perfectionism and Health at Every Size

  1. One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve started practicing a HAES mentality is the time. My time is no longer wasted thinking about eating or not eating. I’m no longer stressed about what I put in to my mouth. I no longer stress about my weight. Most importantly, to me, I no longer view exercise as something that HAS to get done in order to lose weight. I look at exercise and the things I do as a way of my body showing me all the cool things it can do if I just let go and let it.
    Keep up the great work, Ragen.

    1. Couldn’t agree more! Plus there is also a sense of peace that was missing before.

      Time + Peace = wide open vistas to pay attention to the stuff that actually matters in life.

      As for “screwing up” – hey – that just means you are out there having a good time and trying new things. Beware those who never allow themselves to “screw up” – they are often very limited people.

    2. I also couldn’t agree more. I craft with some older women and invariably we start talking about food and it turns out that most of these women have done weight watchers a lot over the years. One of the first things I noticed when I started trying HAES is that I stopped thinking about food all the time. I think about it in terms of when something has to be started and I think about it in terms of planning shopping, and sometimes in terms of I’ve been craving X so I’m going to plan the rest of meals of the day so I can really enjoy X. But that’s it and that’s so substantially different from what I used to do it’s still kind of confusing.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I am in a place right now with SA and HAES that I really feel I needed to hear that it’s ok to screw up. There have been a few days that I didn’t eat foods that were unhealthy for me to consume, I just ate items I’d long denied myself and I overindulged a little. One time I ended up with a tummy ache, another heartburn. The “uh-oh, NOW you’ve done it!” voice started nagging me.
    Although I was perfectly aware of the fact that it is ok to screw up, it’s really nice to hear it from someone else, especially from you. I respect your opionion.
    Thanks again, you rock!

  3. That reminds me of the time I expressed an interest in joining a monster long bike race and my mother was horrified. “But what if you don’t finish the race?” I just replied that I would catch a ride in one of the race cars and no one would bitch slap me for not finishing. I just wouldn’t finish at the finish line. You could see the light going off in her head when she realized that failure at least means you tried.

  4. Thanks for this, Ragen. I have to remind myself every day not to be so hard on myself when I’m not “perfect.” One of the worst things about [erfectionism is that it often makes us procrastinate, because we’re not sure our endeavors will live up to our (unrealistic) expectations.

    One of the things I’ve also noticed is that in our culture–is it just Americans?-not only do we refuse to give ourselves permission to make mistakes, we don’t allow others to do so, either.

    We’re ready to sue over everything, with no seeming awareness that humans are human and don’t always do things perfectly. Everything that goes wrong has to be somebody’s “fault” or somebody’s “negligence.” What about plain old fate? Sometimes people just unintentionally blow it, with no malice aforethought.

    We especially treat medical professionals, particularly doctors, this way–to both our detriment and theirs. We either put them on a pedestal and act like they’re the arbiters of truth, or we decide they’ve ruined our lives. What about thinking critically and taking others’ actions and advice with a grain of salt–no matter how much of an authority figure we (or they) think they are? I bet we’d all be much healthier emotionally if we were more accepting of both our own and others’ mistakes.

  5. Giving yourself permission to “mess up” involves giving yourself permission, and to me, that’s a major missing ingredient in changing your relationship with food. Feeling not entitled (because of your size or your health or because others don’t believe you should be eating) in my humble opinion, prohibits us from really trusting our body and self-regulating our intake. I think it’s so much more than the fear of messing up; even if you have what any other normal person would eat you may not think you’re deserving of it and this itself results in a troubled relationship with food.

  6. Lately in examining my relationship with food and weight with a coach (the wonderful Golda Poretsky, I’ve noticed yet again how my attitudes about work, leisure, responsibility, deservedness, etc. are entwined with unrealistic perfectionist expectations about my body. Sometimes I think we as women tend to try to exert control over our eating and weight because we crave a simpler, more tangible, way of addressing thorny questions like how “good” we are, whether we’re entitled to happiness, fulfillment, contentment, self-interest, self-love…and whether we’re allowed not to stick to “the rules” and to make mistakes. But focusing everything on our bodies is just a way of deflecting from these very real questions we need to be asking ourselves about other aspects of our lives.

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